SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – The gunman who killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church went aisle to aisle looking for victims and shot crying babies at point-blank range, a couple who survived the attack said.
Rosanne Solis and Joaquin Ramirez were sitting near the entrance to the First Baptist Church on Sunday when they heard what sounded like firecrackers and realized someone was shooting at the tiny wood-frame building.
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In an interview with San Antonio television station KSAT, Solis said congregants began screaming and dropped to the floor. She could see bullets flying into the carpet and fellow worshippers falling down, bloodied, after getting hit.
For a moment, the attacked seemed to stop, and worshippers thought that police had arrived to confront the gunman. But then he entered the church and resumed “shooting hard” at helpless families, Solis said.
The gunman checked each aisle for more victims, including babies who cried out amid the noise and smoke, Ramirez said.
The couple survived by huddling close to the ground and playing dead. Solis was shot in the arm. Ramirez was hit by shrapnel.
“The lord saved me because I know it was my last day,” Solis told the station.
About 20 other people were wounded. At least five were still hospitalized Tuesday.
Investigators collected at least 15 empty magazines that held 30 rounds each at the scene, suggesting the assailant fired at least 450 rounds.
The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic violence that spanned years before the attack and was able buy weapons because the Air Force did not submit his criminal history to the FBI as required by military rules.
If Kelley’s past offences had been properly shared, they would have prevented him from buying a gun, the Air Force acknowledged Monday.
Investigators also revealed that Kelley had sent threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, a member of the church, before the attack, and that sheriff’s deputies had responded to a domestic violence call in 2014 at his home involving a girlfriend who became his second wife.
Later that year, he was formally ousted from the Air Force for a 2012 assault on his ex-wife in which he choked her and struck her son hard enough to fracture his skull.
At a news conference in South Korea, President Donald Trump was asked if he would support “extreme vetting” for gun purchases in the same way he has called for “extreme vetting” for people entering the country. Trump responded by saying stricter gun control measures might have led to more deaths in the shooting because a bystander who shot at the gunman would not have been armed.
“If he didn’t have a gun, instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead,” Trump said.
In the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, population 400, grieving townspeople reeled from their losses. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years old and included multiple members of some families.
“Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family,” said the pastor’s wife Sherri Pomeroy, who, like her husband, was out of town when the attack happened. “Now most of our church family is gone.”
The couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was among those killed.
Kelley’s mother-in-law sometimes attended services there, but the sheriff said she was not at church Sunday.
The massacre appeared to stem from a domestic situation and was not racially or religiously motivated, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Freeman Martin said. He did not elaborate.
Based on evidence at the scene, investigators believe Kelley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders, one of whom was armed, and crashed his car.
The 26-year-old shooter also used his cellphone to tell his father he had been shot and did not think he would survive, authorities said.
While in the military, Kelley served in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his 2014 discharge, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.
He was discharged for the assault involving his previous wife and her child and had served a year of confinement after a court-martial. Under Pentagon rules, information about convictions of military personnel for crimes such as assault should be submitted to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Investigation Services Division.
Stefanek said the service is launching a review of its handling of the case and taking a comprehensive look at its databases to ensure other cases have been reported correctly.
A few months before he received the bad-conduct discharge, sheriff’s deputies went to his home to check out the domestic violence complaint involving him and his then-girlfriend. People in the house said there was no problem, and no arrests were made. Kelley married the girlfriend two months later.
Also in 2014, he was charged with misdemeanour animal cruelty in Colorado after a neighbour reported him for beating a dog. Kelley initially refused to speak with officers about the incident. He denied abusing the animal but complied with an order to pay almost $370 in restitution. He was also the focus of a protective order issued in Colorado in 2015.
Kelley lived in New Braunfels, about 35 miles (55 kilometres) north of the church, and had recently started a job as an unarmed security guard at a nearby resort.
As he left the church, the shooter was confronted by an armed resident – later identified as Stephen Willeford – who had grabbed his own rifle and exchanged fire with Kelley.
Willeford had help from another local resident, Johnnie Langendorff, who said he was driving past the church as the shooting happened. The armed resident asked to get in Langendorff’s truck, and the pair followed as the gunman drove away.
“He jumped in my truck and said, ‘He just shot up the church. We need to go get him.’ And I said ‘Let’s go,”‘ Langendorff said.
The pursuit reached speeds up to 90 mph (145 kph). Willeford told Arkansas TV stations KHBS/KHOG that he kept a 911 operator advised of the situation during the chase. The gunman eventually lost control of his vehicle and crashed.
Willeford walked up to the vehicle with his gun drawn, and the attacker did not move. Police arrived about five minutes later, Langendorff said.
The assailant was dead in his vehicle. He had three gunshot wounds – two from where the armed man hit him in the leg and the torso and the third self-inflicted wound to the head, authorities said.
“There was no thinking about it. There was just doing. That was the key to all this. Act now. Ask questions later,” Langendorff said.